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Knives Out

The GOP Owns the Border Now. Here’s How Democrats Make Sure of It.

Hard-right Republicans killed the Senate immigration deal out of fealty to Trump. That’s the perfect opening for Biden to go on the attack.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Mike Johnson
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (right) and House Speaker Mike Johnson at the U.S. Capitol last year

Well, well, well. Are you shocked that the border deal fell apart? If you are, where have you been these last eight-plus years? It happened for the same reason that everything in the Republican Party happens—because it’s what Donald Trump wanted.

Last week, momentarily and evidently naïvely, I was actually impressed that some number of Republican senators, apparently a majority of them, was going to stand up to Trump and defy his wishes by voting for this bill. That was how it looked last Thursday. I almost devoted my newsletter last Friday to the topic, telling readers to take note of this moment, because it may signal a new willingness on the part of some prominent Republicans to stand up to Trump.

Some reflex deep inside me counseled that I might live to regret putting the words “Republicans” and “principles” in the same sentence. The angel on my shoulder knew better.

Monday morning, only a few Senate Republicans opposed the bill. By the end of the day, 22 did, including number three GOP Senator John Barrasso. And so, Monday night behind closed doors, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’d been pushing for a “yes” vote, said the hell with it—reportedly telling his fellow Republicans to vote against advancing the bill this week if they didn’t like it.

The GOP killed the border deal. The party that has been caterwauling for months—years—about the porous border dispatched one of its most conservative members, James Lankford of Oklahoma, to negotiate a bill. They had Democrats over a political barrel. President Biden was willing to sign a bill that included plenty of stuff that’s hard for many Democrats to swallow, but it’s an election year, and there’s Arizona to think about. They had a bill the likes of which they won’t see for another 15 years.

And they killed it. Because Trump wants to say “open borders.” Forget policy, forget human beings, forget all that. Politics is politics, and lots of things happen for, duh, political reasons. But this was on a whole ’nother level. When we think their behavior can’t get more shocking, it always, always does.

So how can the Democrats be sure that voters get the message that the Republicans now own this chaos? Obviously, for starters, just say it and say it and say it. The Republicans blocked a bill because they and Trump want to run on the issue. They’d rather have the issue than fix the problem. Whatever Democrats settle on as the best way to say it, just say it over and over and over. They’ll never persuade MAGA voters, but that isn’t the point. The point is persuading the voters who’ll decide the election: the 20,000 in Wisconsin, the 15,000 in Michigan, and so on.

Besides which, they may even persuade some Republicans voters of the merit of their message. They’re not all MAGA. A significant minority don’t love Trump. They won’t vote Biden, but they may stay home—and some of them may lose their ardor for Senate and House candidates who so cravenly kowtowed to Trump on this.

Second, they need to dredge up every quote from Republican senators and House members from a couple weeks back when they were in the highest possible dudgeon that anyone would accuse them of playing politics with this issue. On January 30, CNN’s Manu Raju asked Speaker Mike Johnson if he was trying to kill the bill to help Trump. “No, Manu, that’s absurd,” he said. Yes, he insists today that he opposes the bill on the merits, but if you believe that, you believe E. Jean Carroll and Marla Maples are lookalikes.

There were so many quotes like Johnson’s. North Carolina Republican Senator Thom Tillis may have taken the gold. On January 25, he told NBC: “I didn’t come here to have the president as a boss or a candidate as a boss. I came here to pass good, solid policy. It is immoral for me to think you looked the other way because you think this is the linchpin for President Trump to win.” Immoral! It may not be possible to use that word directly against Tillis, but it can certainly be used against his party.

Third, Biden needs to rise up here. The State of the Union address will take place March 7. That’s the biggest audience he’ll have until his convention speech this summer, and he needs to use the occasion to drive home the Republicans’ naked hypocrisy. He should spell out all the strict provisions of the bill that made it a very tough sell to many members of his own party. He was willing to take some political heat to accept a compromise—one that included a number of Republican priorities—just to do something about the problem. And the Republicans killed it. They’ll boo him. Let them. It’ll be great theater, and to those few thousand Great Lakes voters, the Republicans will look ridiculous.

Biden might also remind his SOTU viewers that three times now in recent American history, the federal government has tried to do something big to address the immigration crisis.

In 2007, Ted Kennedy and John McCain co-sponsored a major bill. George W. Bush, trying to burnish his party’s appeal to Latino voters, was ready to sign. The hard right killed it.

In 2013, during that oh-so-brief period when the GOP was doing a little soul-searching, 32 Republican senators joined Democrats in passing bipartisan immigration reform. The hard right killed it.

And now this. And guess who killed it? The hard right again, this time serving the man who has become their collective and absolute master.

How many times do swing voters need to see this movie before they understand the moral? Apparently a lot of times. Democrats: Remind them.